Sarah Vinke of Dallas Center takes center stage as Persig’s muse


The Dallas County Conservation Board will host author Henry Gurr from 1:30–2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 28 at Forest Park Museum near Perry. Gurr, along with co-author James Essinger, have produced “The Divine Sarah,” a biography of Dallas County native Sarah Winifred Jennings Vinke (1894-1978).

While Vinke might not have much name recognition, but her influence on Robert Pirsig, author of the 1975 novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” is the subject of Gurr and Essinger’s biolgraphy.

Sarah Winifred Jennings Vinke grew up on a farm near Dallas Center and attended Grinnell College. She received a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and went on to teach English at Montana State University, where she worked with and mentored Robert Pirsig in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“Sarah had been the head of the English department and was 34 years older than Pirsig,” according to Gurr. “A mentor relationship developed because they were kindred souls in their supreme intellectual sensitivity to culture and to experience and because there was also a sense in which they were both largely misfits in the formal organizational structure of Montana State College, since renamed Montana State University.”

Gurr explains how Vinke understood the classical Greek notion of “arete” — often translated as “quality” or “excellence” — and helped inspire Pirsig to write his book. Gurr hopes readers of his biography of Vinke will understand the extreme importance of Pirsig’s remarkable and thought-provoking book and will see the vital role Vinke played in the novel and the central importance to it of her notion of Greek “Arete.”

Gurr spent 16 years researching the history of Pirsig’s book and compiled an extensive collection of information and photos that is curated online. In 2002 Gurr photographed the sites along Pirsig’s road trip mentioned in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

Pre-registration for this free program is encouraged. Contact the Dallas County Conservation Board office at 515-465-3577 or


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